Doing Better at Doing Good

YES! nonprofit shows power of sharing knowledge

September 29, 2012 

A voice from the future spoke in North Carolina two weeks ago with this message for everyone who cares about how our young people are being educated today: Stop making knowledge about power.

American economist Jeremy Rifkin, whose vision of harnessing digital technology and renewable energy to spur job creation has made him highly influential in Asia and Europe, spoke at the N.C. Center for Nonprofits annual conference in Durham.

Rifkin, author of “The Third Industrial Revolution,” contends that a fundamental shift is occurring in the world economy. We are leaving behind a hierarchical industrial era in which a relatively small number of corporations controlled production. And we’re coming into a period of “lateral power” in which individuals will join forces through vast social networks to create game-changing services with little more than laptops and sophisticated printers in their homes or dynamic co-working spaces.

But Rifkin reminds us that we’re still stuck with a model for mass public education created to produce workers for an industrial economy. Though exceptions sometimes exist, students are primarily pushed to develop their own personal expertise in core subjects so they can individually pass mandated tests – a vestige of times when keeping knowledge to yourself proved more profitable than sharing it.

Subsequently, students rarely work together on solving real-life problems, which will be an indispensable skill for success in the world of lateral power. Or, as Rifkin put it, to fully unlock the potential of our youth, we need to shift from “the idea that knowledge is power to knowledge as shared meaning and experience.”

This is a challenge not only for our schools but also for the social sector. Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!), a statewide nonprofit with offices in Raleigh, Charlotte and Asheville, gives us a glimpse of what’s possible.

This month YES!, which teams young people from ages 13 to 21 with adults to drive community change, won the N.C. Center for Nonprofits’ Nonprofit Sector Stewardship Award.

YES! advocates for policies at the local, state and national levels that produce healthy adolescents, focusing on the roots of social problems instead of their symptoms. Its four key areas of concentration: tobacco, obesity, underage drinking and health care access.

Teens trained by YES! played a key role in establishing tobacco-free schools in communities throughout the state. They then helped lead a successful fight to ban tobacco in schools statewide.

Sharing power

Turning its focus to the negative effects of second-hand smoke, YES! worked at the local level to implement smoke-free bars and restaurants – and assisted with legislation that eventually banned smoking in these establishments across the state.

YES!’s approach to empowering youth starts with its unconventional organizational structure. Many well-meaning organizations try to improve the lives of young people without involving them too closely in the actual work – missing a great opportunity to model collaboration.

At YES!, young people have prominent seats at the table and are deeply involved in strategy and day-to-day activities.

The nonprofit has about 40 paid positions, two-thirds of which are held by youth.

The idea, says YES! Executive Director Bronwyn Lucas, is to show that different generations can share power effectively.

It’s a notion closely aligned with Rifkin’s belief that learning collaborative skills is a fundamental part of a strong education.

Those lessons are reinforced by YES!, which takes on issues way too large to be addressed effectively by solo players.

In the early days of the movement to ban smoking in restaurants and bars, persuading businesses to eliminate smoking was not an easy sell. Owners worried about revenues that would be lost as smokers defected to other restaurants or stayed home.

Plan of attack

Teens trained by YES! worked together on a plan of attack. Then they broke into teams and made the case door by door, sharing data that clearly showed how revenues actually went up and cleaning costs went down when smoking was banned.

They started with mom-and-pop establishments and made their way into the chain restaurants. Gradually, businesses got on board.

Meanwhile, YES! workers were also educating lawmakers on the dangers of second-hand smoke.

In the end, the students earned something more precious than an A on their own report cards.

They changed public policy and learned how to work with others to affect positive change. Now they are equipped to do that for the rest of their lives.

It’s an example of how sharing power that would make Jeremy Rifkin proud – and shows how organizations that are not formally part of the education system can help lead it into the future.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of “Life Entrepreneurs.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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